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Feminist Translation : Contexts, Practices and Theories

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Luise von Flotow

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Feminist Translation: Contexts, Practices and

Luise von Flotow

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Feminist Translation : Contexts,
Practices and Theories

Luise von Flotow

Or, How to translate "Ce soir j'entre dans l'histoire sans

relever ma jupe"1

I would like to open this essay with a specific translation problem from
La Nef des sorcières1, a dramatic work produced by a group of feminist
writers in Quebec in 1976. The problem is how to translate the
following line: "Ce soir, j'entre dans l'histoire sans relever ma jupe."
There are two translators available for the job: one with more or less
traditional views on the importance of "fidelity" and equivalence in
translation, who believes that a translator's work should be seen
through, and not heard about The other is a feminist translator. The
more traditional translator renders this line from the play as follows:

1. Several oral versions of this essay have been presented: at the CIEF
(Conseil International d'Études Francophones) conference in
Martinique, 1990, and at the CATS (Canadian Association for
Translation Studies) meeting in Kingston, Ontario, in 1991.

2. Brossard, N., France Théoret, et al., La Nef des sorcières, (Montréal,

Quinze, 1976) was written by a number of women authors and
actresses. It opened on March 5, 1976 at the Théâtre du
Nouveau-Monde in Montreal. The two translators referred to here are
respectively, David Ellis and Linda Gaboriau. Gaboriau's translation
of Brossard's text, "L'Écrivain," was published as "The Writer" in
Fireweed, 5-6, 1979-80.

"this evening Fm entering history without pulling up my skirt." This
seems a perfectly adequate, idiomatic version of the source language
text, although I would prefer the more colloquial "without hiking up my
skirt" The feminist translator, on the other hand, translates as follows:
"this evening Fm entering history without opening my legs." Is this a
shocking, unacceptable over-translation, a deliberate over-interpretation
of the original text? Is the translator taking outrageous liberties with a
line that is relatively anodine in the French? Is she being deliberately

I should add here that this example has been used several times
before, but is still appropriate as an illustration of a current practice in
Canadian translation. I took it directly from an article by Barbara
Godard, one of Canada's first feminist translators, and she took it from
an earlier article by Evelyne Voldeng3; a tight circle, which may also
go to show how few literary translators and critics in Canada are
sensitive to feminist issues. It is all the more noteworthy then, that a
small number of Canadian translators should have the effrontery to
proclaim an anti-traditional, aggressive and creative approach to
translation which they call feminist translation.

My exploration of this translation practice is not concerned

with which of the two translations given above is better, or more
appropriate, or more faithful. Instead, I am interested in the context, the
practices and the underlying theories that make the feminist translation
"without opening my legs" acceptable, even desirable. In commenting
on this obvious over-translation, Godard, for example, praised its "shock
effect," and the fact that it makes explicit what is implicit in the
feminist text — "the repossession of the word by women, and the
naming of the life of the body as experienced by women" (Godard,
1984, p. 14). I find the growing importance of this, type of translation
and its increasing visibility intriguing, and potentially invigorating as a
new approach to the work of translation.

I base my claim for the importance of the phenomenon of

feminist translation in Canada on two factors: the increasing numbers

3. B. Godard, 'Translating and Sexual Difference" in Resources for

Feminist Research, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1984, pp. 13-16.

of English translations self-consciously describing themselves as
feminist, and on the increasing number of feminist texts being translated
in Canada today. In the last few years almost all of Nicole Brossard's
radical feminist work has been translated by Barbara Godard, Marlene
Wildeman and Fiona Strachan, and her Désert mauve has just been
published in translation by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood4. Similarly,
France Théoret's early work is coming out shortly in a collection, The
Tangible Word, translated by Godard, and I have just translated her
UHomme qui peignait Staline. A first volume of Madeleine Gagnon's
work has appeared in translation by Howard Scott, the only male who
describes himself as a feminist translator, and Louky Bersianik's
VEuguétionne is being re-translated by Scott6. And finally, Lise
Gauvin'sLettres dune autre has been deliberately turned into a feminist
text in its translated, and prize-winning, English version by de

4. The foUowing "radical feminist" books by Nicole Brossard have

appeared in Canadian translation: These Our Mothers (Toronto, Coach
House, 1983), Lovhers (Montreal, Guernica, 1987) and Picture theory
(Montreal, Guernica, 1991) translated by Barbara Godard, Surfaces of
Sense (Toronto, Coach House, 1989), translated by Fiona Strachan,
The Aerial Letters CToronto, Women's Press, 1988) translated by
Marlene Wildeman, and Mauve Desert by Susanne de Lotbinière-

5. Théoret's early work will be published in a translation by Barbara

Godard The Tangible Word (Montreal, Guernica Press, 1991). My
translation of L'Homme qui peignait Staline was published by
Mercury Press, Stratford, Ont. in 1991.

6. Howard Scott has published Lair CToronto, Coach House, 1989) a

translation of Madeleine Gagnon's Antre, and is preparing a new
translation of Louky Bersianik's L'Euguelionne.

Lotbinière-Harwood7. Almost invariably these publications are prefaced
by remarks that describe the work as feminist translation.


It is evident from the above that recent Quebec writing is at the root of
this phenomenon, and I would like to quickly sketch out the cultural
and social contexts that underlie it. Feminist translation seems to have
developed as a method of translating the focus on and critique of
"patriarchal language" by feminist writers in Quebec. In the late 1970s
and early 1980s the Quebec writers I mentioned above, among others,
were producing work that was highly experimental, and constituted
efforts to attack, deconstruct, or simply bypass the conventional
language they perceived as inherently misogynist In the words of one
critic of the period: "Les femmes injectent un sang neuf [...] et le
déplacement du propos s'effectue autant dans le trajet que dans le projet
de leurs créations (Sabourin, 1985, p. 129). If we cursorily define their
"projet" as the elaboration of an "écriture au féminin," a feminist
literary culture, then their "trajet" was an attack on conventional
language — "le déplacement du propos."

These writers' texts were thus often oriented around formalist

inquiry into the materiality of language, a tendency remaining from
Quebec's earlier modernité. They were concerned with research into the
etymology of conventional vocabulary and its deconstruction. They
explored women's experiences that had not been put into words before,
and tried to write "l'inédit"8. They sought to create a new idiom with
which to express these experiences of the body, and write a women's
utopia. The silent "e" that marks the female gender in French became

7. Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood has published translations of short

texts by Nicole Brossard, as well as Lise Gauvin's Letters from
Another (Toronto, Women's Press, 1989). She is also working on
translating Gail Scott's Heroine into French, a process that made her
base a recent lecture on the need for women to re-appropriate the
word "con" in French.

8. "Inédit" is a privileged term in Brassard's writing referring to that

which cannot be inscribed for lack of appropriate language.

an important element in the critique of the masculine as a generic term;
it was exploited as a mutant element with which neologisms and puns
could be developed to parody and attack conventional language. Other
strategies included the fragmentation of language, the disregard for
grammatical or syntactical structures and the dismantling of individual
words in order to examine their concealed meanings: Brassard's use of
the word "dé-lire" to mean both delirious and uncontrolled expression
of women's realities and fantasies as well as the process of un-reading
— DÉ-LIRE — or reading against the grain is a good example of this
work on language.

Bersianik used another approach. Her etymological critique of

conventional language pervades L'Euguélionne and she consistently
manipulates language to parody patriarchal "knowledge." For example,
her critique of the dictionary definition of the word "virile," which
describes characteristics such as energy, activity, and courage as typical
of men both reveals the arrogance of conventional knowledge and shows
how easily she too can manipulate language:

un peu de modestie, messieurs les Virils. N'oubliez pas que le

mot "verge" qui veut dire "baguette" a donné le diminutif
"virgule"... (Bersianik, 1976, p. 356)

These are only two of the many different approaches taken by Quebec
feminist writers in the 1970s and early 1980s to wreck the power of
conventional discourse. Despite their different strategies, politics and
personalities, they shared the general feeling that conventional and
prescriptive "patriarchal language" had to be undone in order for
women's words to develop, find a space and be heard.

The translation of these texts from Quebec began in the

late-1970s with two feminist plays La Nef des sorcières and Les Fées
ont soif9. The anthology The Story so far10 edited by Brossard was

9. Denise Boucher, Les Fées ont soif (Montréal, Éditions Intermède,

1978) was translated as The Fairies are thirsty (Vancouver,
Talonbooks, 1982).

another important milestone, and gradually the corpus of translated
feminist work from Quebec came to include conference texts, work
presented at trans-Canadian women writers' meetings and finally
complete books. Feminist translation is thus a direct spin-off from the
experimental work by Quebec women writers; it is a phenomenon
intimately connected to a specific writing practice in a specific
ideological and cultural environment, the result of a specific social
conjuncture. It is an approach to translation that has appropriated and
adapted many of the techniques and theories that underlie the writing it


There are numerous strategies used in feminist translation of which I

will discuss only three here — supplementing, prefacing and footnoting,
and "hijacking." Suffice it to say as a brief introduction, that the
feminist translator, following the lead of the feminist writers she
translates, has given herself permission to make her work visible,
discuss the creative process she is engaged in, collude with and
challenge the writers she translates.


Since "patriarchal language" and its institutions govern most aspects of

conventional language, whether it is English, French or any other
language, translators who work from Québécois feminist texts into
English have had to turn the critique of one language into the critique
of another. Howard Scott's essay on translating Bersianik makes this
clear (Scott, 1984). He did not want to "convey to the English reader
what Bersianik says about French, he says, but rather adapt her message
to English, and show how the English language is sexist" — pareil,
mais autrement. Concretely, this means serious interference with the
text. Supplementing, as we know from Benjamin's text, "Die Aufgabe
des Übersetzers," is one of the most positive aspects of translation. It is
the aspect I always keep in mind when I wrestle with apparently

10. Nicole Brossard, éd. Les Stratégies du réel, translated as The Story so
far, (Toronto, Coach House, 1979) with a number of different

untranslatable texts. According to Benjamin the source text is
supplemented by its translation, matured, developed, and given an
afterlife. This is precisely what happens with supplementation in
feminist translation, with the difference that the feminist translator is
conscious of her political role as a mediator, whereas Benjamin seems
to conceive of a translation, or any work of art for that matter, as
apolitical and not primarily destined for an audience.

Supplementing in feminist translation is a strategy which may

explain the "over-translation" of the "without opening my legs" example
above. It compensates for the differences between languages, or
constitutes "voluntarist action" on the text. For even if English doesn't
have exactly the same problems of gender or etymology, there are other
places in the text where a similar déplacement of language can be
carried out There is a good example in Scott's translation of
Bersianik's L'Euguélionne. In a text where the politics of abortion are
held up for scrutiny, the following line occurs:

"Le ou la coupable doit être punie."

The extra "e" on the past participle "puni" clearly indicates that it is the
woman who is punished for aborting. But this subtlety is not directly
transferable into English which lacks gender agreements. Scott's
"voluntarist" solution supplements this particular lack in English and
reads as follows :

"The guilty one must be punished, whether she is a man or a


This feminist translator thus recoups certain losses by intervening in,

and supplementing another part of the text He also supplements the
original text by making its critique of language apply to English, and
meaningful to an English-speaking readership.

Godard has used another strategy in her translation of the title

of Nicole Brossard's L'Amer. The word is a neologism in French which
contains at least three terms: mère (mother), mer (sea), and amer
(bitter). The themes of the patriarchal mother — the woman reduced to
reproduction, her suffocation in this unrecognized labour and her

subsequent tendency to suffocate her own children — pervade the first
part of the book. Godard, supplementing the untranslatable wordplay of
the title, whose effect rests on the "e muet," and the sound associations
in French, includes a kind of "explication de texte" in her version. Her
title becomes "The Sea Our Mother" + "Sea (S)mothers" + "(S)our
Mothers" to finally end with:

O our

It includes the sour, smothering aspects of patriarchal motherhood in
addition to the association of mer and mère, supplementing the lack of
the silent "e" in English.

Prefacing and Footnoting

More recently, feminist interventions have taken on other forms. It is

becoming almost routine for feminist translators to reflect on their work
in a preface, and to stress their active presence in the text in footnotes.
The modest, self-effacing translator, who produces a smooth, readable
target language version of the original has become a thing of the past.
As Godard has put it, the feminist translator seeks to flaunt her
signature in italics, in footnotes, and in prefaces, deliberately
womanhandling the text and actively participating in the creation of
meaning (Godard, 1988, p. 50).

She is more than a conventional translator; she is the author's

accomplice who maintains the strangeness of the source text, and seeks
at the same time to communicate its multiple meanings otherwise "lost
in translation." There is a strong didactic streak in this strategy. For
example, in her preface to Nicole Brossard's These Our Mothers
Godard explains the wordgames that could not be translated — the play
with the silent "e" in French — and goes on to interpret their intention:
the "e," she says, is dropped by the author in words like "laboratoir" to
mark the absence of the feminine in the activities carried out there. It
is removed from the title VAmer, she continues, to "underline the

process of articulating women's silence and moving toward a neutral
grammar" (Godard, 1983, p. 7). She then indicates her supplementing
activities — graphic modes, wordplays more familiar to anglophone
feminists, and in a final pedagogical move draws attention to other
aspects of the text which the secular (i.e. non-academic English reader)
might miss: in this case, contemporary French philosophical discourse
that is inscribed in the text.

The translation is marked by her interferences: for example the

line "J'ai tué le ventre et fait éclater la mer" (20) becomes in the
English "I have killed the womb and exploded the Sea/Sour mother"
(14) , a reference to her intervention in the title. There are footnotes
giving references to literary intertexts: to Camus' L'Étranger (25) and
Rousseau's Confessions d'un promeneur solitaire (83). And wherever
Brossard uses the word "histoire", the English His-story appears. In
Lovhers, a brilliant translation of Brossard's title Amantes, an even
longer translator's preface by Godard both contextualizes and interprets
Brossard's text, and discusses the translation.

Marlene Wildeman's English version of Brossard's La Lettre

aérienne is also prefaced and marked by the translator's interventions.
Footnotes throughout the text specify intertexts that Brossard herself
did not indicate : for example "Ie corps certain"(20) is attributed to
Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text (44), and Wildeman goes so far as to
even give the page numbers in the English translation of Barthes' text
where this concept is developed. Page references to texts by Djuna
Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Luce Mgaray, Mallarmé and others are given
throughout, while neither authors nor their works, let alone page
references, are directly cited in the source text. Moreover, Brossard's
multiple connotations are explained in copious translator's notes: for
instance, the author's phrase "C'est le désir de la réplique" (136) is
developed in a lengthy footnote in the English version (143). Similarly,
the difficulties with neologisms like the term essentielle are discussed
both in the preface and then highlighted in footnotes. In Wildeman's
approach, a feminist translation becomes an educational tool supported
with scholarly research. Here the question of the targetted readership is
very important.

In the preface the translator wonders whether she is translating
for Canadian feminists alone and "thus flying a letter of international
stature to regional airports only?" (Wildeman, 1988, p. 27) or whether
she should target North American, in other words American feminists
at the risk of glossing over Can/Am differences. She seems to have
opted for the larger market, and prepared a text for use in Women's
Studies programs anywhere in America. With Louise Forsyth's
comprehensive introduction, the Québécois/Can Lit bases are

It is perhaps this growing aspiration to international

recognition, and the appeal to the US market that is partially responsible
for the third strategy in feminist translation that I want to discuss here.


I have taken the term "hijacking" from a critic of feminist translation,

a Montreal journalist (a translator himself) who attacks Susanne de
Lotbinière-Harwood for her excessive interference in the translation of
Lettres d'une autre by Lise Gauvin:

The translator [...] is so intrusive at times that she all but

hijacks the author's work. In the introduction she tells us she
intends to make her presence felt [...] to this end she frequently
breaks into Gauvin's work explaining what Gauvin really
meant and sometimes offering the French equivalent for the
English on the page. (Homel, 1990)12

11. The appeal to the American academic market is, I think, increasingly
important In a climate of "de-canonization" in the United States, and
a growing fashion for marginal literatures, whether Canadian,
francophone, or radical lesbian, it makes sense to target the large
academic establishments and budgets. In an academic climate where
women's studies programs and courses on women's writing are the
rule, rather than an exception, it makes sense to practise and proclaim
deliberate feminist interventions in the texts.

12. Thanks to Annie Brisset for clipping and sending me both Homel's
article and de Lotbinière-Harwood's response.

He further faults the work for its excessive footnoting, and narrow
didactic approach. In his view, Gauvin's book has become an "informal
textbook on contemporary Quebec culture11 and been ideologically
"corrected" (i.e. feminized), beyond the author's original intention. The
translator responded that (a) the translation did in fact target a North
American readership, including colleges and universities, and that notes
explaining the referendum and tourtière were therefore justifiable, and
that (b) she worked closely with the author on the English version, from
which I infer that she had her permission to "correct" the text.

Of particular interest in this work of "correction" is the

translator's deliberate feminizing of the target text, which she announces
in her preface as a political intervention:

Lise Gauvin is a feminist, and so am I. But I am not her. She

wrote in the generic masculine. My translation practice is a
political activity aimed at making language speak for women.
So my signature on a translation means: this translation has
used every possible translation strategy to make the feminine
visible in language. Because making the feminine visible in
language means making women seen and heard in the real
world. Which is what feminism is all about. (De
Lotbinière-Harwood, 1990, p. 9)

By making the feminine seen and heard in her translation, de

Lotbinière-Harwood deliberately contravenes conventional translation
practice of being see-through and silent. Her strategies include using
the word Québécois-e-s wherever the generic Québécois occurred in the
original — a source-language feminization tactic which she explains in
her preface. She avoids other male generic terms in English although
they appear in French, i.e. "la victoire de l'homme" becomes "our
victory [...] over the elements"; she puts the female element first in
expressions like "women and men," "her or his," and uses inverted
quotation marks to emphasize some of the absurdities of conventional
English, for example, the reference to women as "masters" of the

De Lotbinière-Harwood has in fact "hijacked" the text,

appropriated it, made it her own to reflect her political intentions. And

the fact that this translation won the prize awarded for the translation
of French-Canadian literature by Columbia University in 1991 further
validates her strategies. In this case, the translator's collusion with the
author is, I think, of secondary importance. Here the translator is writing
in her own right

Theories and Effects

It is difficult and probably unnecessary to pinpoint specific theories that

have validated the feminist approach to translation. In general it could
be said that the erosion of the authority of the Author/Original in
post-structuralist and deconstructionist discourses of the last twenty
years has certainly been of great importance, giving the translator a
much freer rein with the text.

Derridean revision of key concepts in Western philosophy

whose nuances were indeed "lost in translation" has stimulated renewed
interest in the work of the translator13, and endowed her with the right,
even the duty to "abuse" the source text14. Indeed, the entire
post-structuralist project of questioning master-narratives, challenging
definitive truths, and exploring relativity in meaning has forced
translation to become a creative endeavour. And translators of Derrida's
texts, dealing with the ambivalencies, ambiguities and multiple
meanings of his writing have consistently stressed the need for creativity
and experimentation in their prefaces, thus setting a new tone in
translation practice. In the preface to her translation of Derrida's
Dissemination, Barbara Johnson (1981), for one, calls for "strong,

13. See Derrida's "Des Tours de Babel" in Difference in Translation, ed.

Joseph P. Graham, (Cornell University Press, 1985). Also Derrida's
retranslation of the term economy in his long footnote to "Survivre"
in Parages (Paris, Galilée, 1986) and his critique of the term
Pharmakon based on its one-sided translation in La Dissémination
(Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1972).

14. Philip Lewis argues that only "abusive" translation can do justice to
contemporary texts that pursue a critique of conventional
"phallologocentric" language. See his article "The Measure of
Translation Effects" in Difference in Translation, op.cit., note 17.

forceful translation that values experimentation, tampers with usage,
seeks to match the poly valencies or plurivocities or expressive stresses
of the original by producing its own" — exactly what feminist
translators in Canada are doing.

Finally, the influence of second-wave feminism has been vital

to feminist translation. It has endowed both Quebec feminist writers and
their translators with the authority and the means to disregard Authority.
With authorship and "patriarchal language11 demystified, the feminist
translator can dare to be a resistant, aggressive and creative writer who
not only tampers with the HE/Man aspects of conventional language,
but intervenes in the text in many other ways. Moreover, with recent
theorists' exploitation of the lexicon of sexuality and especially sexual
difference — jouissance, dissémination, invagination, hymen, and so
forth — the subtle connections between gender, definitions of mimesis
or fidelity in writing, and translation have become obvious, and feminist
translators are striking out in at least two directions at once: at
conventional language use per se and at traditional views of translation.

This is where the question of the long-term effects of feminist

translation comes in, which in my view have a certain developmental
if not revolutionary potential. Recent work by Lori Chamberlain15 on
metaphors of translation has shown that the most traditional and
misogynist conceptions of gender roles and attributes have coloured
much of the discussion on translation, coding it as a passive and
subservient activity that simply reproduces someone else's real work.
And as we all know, the work of reproduction, of human beings or
texts, though absolutely vital for literary or human endeavours, is
generally underpaid, undervalued, even despised in the hierarchical
structures that define our culture. Reproduction has historically been
women's work; and the tropes used to describe translation, though
stressing the need to maintain control of the reproduction of texts
(offspring), reflect its lowliness. Indeed, the discourse on translation
has consistently served to express the difference in value between the
original and its "reproduction," and has routinely used metaphors of

15. Lori Chamberlain, "Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation" in

Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1988, Vol. 13, No.
3, pp. 454-472.

rape and violence against women and of paternalistic control to maintain
this difference. In so doing, traditional tropes used for translation have
reflected the power relations between the sexes, and revealed the fear
of the maternal (or the mother tongue), the need to protect (control) it
as well as the need to retain the ownership of offspring (texts).

It is a discourse that with expressions like "les belles infidèles"

has maintained the double standards based on traditional gender
stereotypes according to which beautiful texts and beautiful women can
only be unfaithful, and faithful texts are by definition ugly, just as ugly
women (a contradiction in terms) can't help but be faithful. This
metaphorics has carried on into very recent work by writers such as
Serge Gavronsky who celebrates his liberation from excessive fidelity
to the original as a process of "capturing, and performing rape and
incest" on the text.16

It seems evident that in devising and practising creative

non-traditional approaches to translation, making their presence felt in
the texts and challenging their authors, feminist translators in Canada
are making changes to some of these traditional views and the habitual
"missionary" position assigned to translation. Translation practice, and
in a teleological sense, the development of language can only stand to
gain from such new approaches17. With notions of fidelity and truth,
transparency and definitive meaning in translation giving way to
supplementation, experimentation, interference and "transformance," and

16. Cited by Chamberlain, p. 462, from Serge Gavronsky's "The

Translator: From Piety to Cannibalism" in Sub-stance, 16 (1977).

17. In a response to my oral presentation of this paper in Kingston, Jean

Delisle pointed out that there seemed to be many parallels between
contemporary feminist translation and the work of medieval
translators. Translators of the Middle Ages were also forced to deal
with neologisms, and adapt unknown terms into fluctuating and
unstable target languages; moreover they played an important role in
shaping and establishing new norms in language. If we extend this
analogy and maintain a certain amount of optimism, we can conceive
of feminist translators today having an impact on the development of
gender-free, or at least gender-conscious language several centuries
from now!

with feminist consciousness inscribed in many aspects of our
contemporary writing, there is thus every reason why "This evening
Fm entering history without opening my legs" is a valid contemporary
version of "Ce soir j'entre dans l'histoire sans relever ma jupe."

Works Cited
BENJAMIN, Walter (1977). "Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers,"
Illuminationen, Frankfurt am Main, Suhikamp.

BERSIANIK, Louky (1976). UEuguéliome, Montreal, La Presse.

BOUCHER, Denise (1978). Les Fées ont soif, Montreal, Éditions

Intermède. Translated by Alan Brown (1982). The Fairies are
thirsty, Vancouver, Talonbooks.

BROSSARD, Nicole (1976). "L'Écrivain", La Nef des sorcières,

Montreal, Quinze. Translated by Linda Gaboriau (1979-80),
"The Writer" in Fireweed, 5-6.

(1977). L'Amer ou le chapitre effrité, Montreal, Quinze,

Reprint (1988), Montreal, L'Hexagone. Translated (1983) by
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